Federal Officials Raise Doubts Over GHG, Health Impacts Of Biofuels

Source: Bridget DiCosmo, Inside EPA • Posted: Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Current and former federal officials are raising doubts about the greenhouse gas (GHG) and health benefits of biofuels production and use relative to conventional fuels, though one top official says that even though the benefits may not as great as once thought, it appears unlikely that policymakers will scale back supply mandates and incentives.

Frank Loy, a former climate negotiator in the Clinton administration, told a Jan. 25 Institute of Medicine (IOM) meeting, “The Nexus of Biofuels: Energy, Climate Change, and Health,” that increased production and use of biofuels may not be providing the GHG reduction benefits that many had expected, noting that GHG reductions from using biofuels appear to come from the uptake in agricultural activities, which use carbon, not from the energy use itself.

“If the GHG reduction is not great, one might think there would be a reversal, but that trend is not going to happen,” said Loy, who now chairs the IOM’s Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, & Medicine, which hosted the meeting.

His comments come as the ethanol industry is urging EPA to revise its analysis of ethanol’s lifecycle GHG emissions to account for new production efficiencies that are reducing the fuel’s GHGs. If granted, the industry’s preferred approach could help corn-ethanol plants meet a statutorily required 20-percent GHG reduction target relative to conventional fuels in order to qualify for credit under the agency’s renewable fuel standard (RFS).

Loy and other federal officials at the meeting said that given continued use of biofuels in the fuel supply, federal health officials need to carefully assess potential health risks, including increased discharges of nutrients to surface waters from agricultural runoff, greater use of pesticides and fertilizers and other possible effects of biofuels production.

“Even though biofuels may not help as much in climate change mitigation as previously thought, health professionals still need to be enlisted in the effort [to study risks] in a more active and robust way,” Loy said.

His comments echo those of Chris Portier, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), who highlighted a series of unanswered questions concerning the potential health impacts associated with increased biofuels use and production, saying that while alternatives to fossil fuels and fuel additives may have the potential be more environmentally benign, all of the potential health implications related to biofuels “are not clear yet.”.

EPA and other federal agencies have grappled during the past several years with how to assess health risks associated with various uses of biofuel feedstocks, particularly with respect to GHG emissions, given lingering policy uncertainty.

EPA, for example, said in its 2011 assessment of “Biofuels and the Environment: First Triennial Report to Congress,” which sought to examine impacts of large-scale biofuels production, pointed to some possible harms, including more discharges of pollutants into water and increased GHG emissions, but noted that the study was somewhat hindered by scientific uncertainties and data limitations.

And during the two-day IOM meeting, EPA’s Karl Simons said that the agency is currently conducting several studies related to increased use of biofuels under its RFS, including an assessment of air emissions from use of various fuel blends and an analysis of how the RFS complies with anti-backsliding provisions under the Clean Air Act.

Health Assessments

The IOM meeting, held in Washington, DC, follows up on a November 2007 workshop that examined public health issues related to the composition of traditional fossil fuels and alternative renewable fuel sources. “Since that time, the development of renewable biofuel resources has increased dramatically, both in quantity and types of fuels being developed,” a notice on IOM’s website says of the Jan. 24-25 discussion.

“At the same time, newer approaches to evaluation of health impacts — those that incorporate health impact assessment in a broader framework of decision-making as well as those that address sustainability — have been developed.”

The meeting was part of a series the roundtable is hosting to facilitate discussions of “sensitive and difficult environmental health issues” in a neutral setting, and is not intended to produce any recommendations or advice.

Given the potential health implications from ethanol production, including water and food insecurity and depletion of agricultural resources, “Is it or is it not efficient to create biofuels from corn?” Portier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said during a Jan. 25 panel, “Government Agencies’ Perspectives.”

“That’s the fundamental question that has not really been brought to the forefront — it’s not just a question of economics, that’s a question of health,” Portier said.

Portier noted lingering questions on health impacts, including whether biofuel exhaust has the potential to trigger asthma-related effects in the same way as diesel exhaust, ecosystem services impacts and whether human exposures have increased. “It is not clear we have the mechanisms to track whether biofuels exposures are getting higher in the U.S.,” he said.

Portier recently drew criticism from House Republicans for his remarks on the possible health effects of hydraulic fracturing that they said raised doubts about his impartiality to lead a pending federal study on the practice’s health risks. In a letter to the administration late last year, the lawmakers raised concerns with statements from Portier that the GOP says call “into question whether a study under his leadership can be objectively and validly conducted.” Among other things, Portier has allegedly said that shale gas development “has been a disaster” in some areas and that anecdotal evidence of environmentally-induced illness warrants a “more serious and systematic approach to studying it.”